Sunday, December 1, 2013

Wanderlust

The other day, I calculated that I have spent roughly half of the last six years out of the country. I have lived in France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Morocco, and Jordan. It's been a blast. I've loved it, and wanderlust still consumes much of my waking day. Traveling has always drawn me- foreign lands were always just so much cooler than boring local politics and familiar art and songs.

When I interned in Jordan during the summer of 2010, I hiked Wadi Mujib in Jordan, a slot canyon with crystal clear water that gives (some) life to the Dead Sea. The canyon walls towered and narrowed above me and my friends, enclosing us in a geological wonder filled with life and coolness in an area normally so sterile and warm. We clambered over rocks and waterfalls, forged tiny pools, and had our feet picked clean by tiny fishes at the end. It was wonderful.

I returned to Provo following that indelible summer and, eager to repeat my slot canyon experience, hiked the Narrows with another group of friends. Again, the same closed space, the relentlessness of the timeless water wearing down the rocks, spectacular cliff walls, and so on. Again, it was wonderful. But, I distinctly thought to myself as we neared the end: why did I have to go to Jordan to experience this for the first time when something so similar was in my backyard?

The formation of that question has since marked me. I've spent years abroad and passed countless hours studying other cultures and languages, but how well do I know my own culture? Do I understand what makes my people, the Americans, the Mormons, the Juchaus, the neighbors, the classmates, the coworkers tick? Have I explored my backyard? It begs the question, can I truly understand others if I don't understand myself?

When I look back on my travels in Morocco, Jordan, France, and Israel, I realize that the greatest joys often occurred from the homecoming: from seeing friends and family again after a long absence. Of course, I missed my Arab/French friends and family, but I missed more my family and my friends. I've realized recently that my deepest joys in life do not stem from a thousand brief if meaningful acquaintanceships but rather from the deep, emotional attachments I form with family and friends. It's these experiences, so painful and raw at times, that have taught me about love, adventure, and the human experience.

Similarly, as I explore my own community through projects such as Humans of Provo, I find a wealth of human experience in my community, an area of study I had previously dismissed as too "common" and "ordinary." Art and culture and diversity can be found in our community; the whole gamut runs through my neighborhood. You can find what you want here despite the seemingly monolithic facade. A culture and a language that I speak fluently but do not understand fully is right here at my doorstep. I've come to realize that my culture is just as exotic and foreign to an Arab or an African as theirs is to me. Somehow, that ups the coolness factor of it.

Please don't misunderstand: my experiences in Jordan, Morocco, Israel, and France have opened me up in a way that no other experience could. I've learned about piety, ritual, and family from Arab Muslims, the joy of life and death from Africans in France, and skepticism from the French, to name but a few of the lessons I've gleaned abroad. I wouldn't trade that time for anything. And I still want to go abroad, to live abroad, and to expand my repertoire of the world's religions, cultures, and people.

 But, I recently can't help wondering if what I've been looking for- adventure, love, diversity, art, culture, the human experience- has been here all along. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Music

This is a pretty random blog post, but it's something that I've been thinking about for awhile and been meaning to write down. 

I'll always associate certain music with different periods of my life. For some reason, there always seems to be some album or artist that speaks to me and my experiences of that time. There's a few gaps where I can't think of a good album to go along with that period of my life, but I feel like I can define quite a bit of my life by the music I was listening to at the time. Here's a brief list and some thoughts behind each one:

Summer 2009: Stars, Your Ex-Lover is Dead
- Fresh back from my mission, I was introduced to the Stars by a good friend, Kurt Daniels. A unique, light style but with heavy themes, far different and more eclectic than anything I had listened to pre-mission. A time of getting to know the post-mission me.

Summer 2010: White Stripes, Get Behind Me, Satan
- I had listened to the White Stripes before, but isolated out in the Badia, the raw simplicity of Meg and Jack White appealed to me and the fairly stark, simple conditions that I was living in. 

Fall 2010: Black Keys, Attack and Release
- Coming back from Jordan, where I was exposed to the Black Keys for the first time by Cyrus Roeddel, the continued rawness and difficulty of adjusting to post-Jordan life in luxurious Provo struck a chord within me. Besides that, it's just great music to run to. 

Winter 2011: Radiohead, In Rainbows
- I got in perhaps my first serious relationship this semester, causing me to reflect on my life, the relationship, and my imminent departure for DC and Jordan. Something about the esoteric, melancholic tones of Radiohead stood out.

Summer 2011: Local Natives, Gorilla Manor
- Aside from the fact that this was one of the four albums I had access to on my iPod Shuffle for the summer, the upbeat Local Natives matched well with a rather carefree summer spent in the nation's capital. 

Fall 2011: Andrew Bird, Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha
- In Jordan, the abstract and almost incomprehensible lyrics of Andrew Bird combined with his globally influenced music went well with my difficulties in understanding the Arabic language and making sense of a very foreign culture.

Winter 2012: Mashrou' Leila, El Hal Romancy
- Fresh back from Jordan and ready to date, El Hal Romancy (The Romantic Solution) kept alive the spirit of the Arab culture that I had come to know and love. The combination of Western and Arab music traditions helped me retain the Arab world in my life while merging again into American life. 

Summer 2012: Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary
- The raw, reckless, and rebellious sound of Wolf Parade, and especially their song "I'll Believe in Anything" fueled a summer of limited responsibilities, new friends, and lots of adventures. 

Winter/Spring 2013/Now: Noah and the Whale, The First Days of Spring
- I'll tell you after it's done.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Cycle

I went to the BYU Final Film Cut Festival the other weekend. Usually, the student films are so-so, but I was really impressed by the line-up this year. I particularly liked one film, Chronicle of a Country, and not just because it takes place in France. Essentially a series of vignettes, the film sets out to discover what happiness means to French people. A man tells of the most happy moment in his life, when he was on an isolated Pacific island. An older gentleman tells of his biggest regret in life. What really stuck out to me, though, was the segment from 5:10 to 8:09. It's not a story like the other two; rather, a woman discusses what a moment of unhappiness is. I don't feel like I can express it any better than the woman can, so here's a link to the video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzjfKfxQTuI

I've lived such a transient lifestyle over the last seven years. Live somewhere for a few months, pack up, go on an adventure, live somewhere else, change wards, change groups of friends, change majors, start a job, get married, lose contact with old friends- the list goes on. So many people have impacted my life for a brief moment, but always, always, time pushes me forward towards other people, places, and events. People come and go, and while I still and will always value those relationships and those places that have molded me, in many cases, the moment passes and the situation doesn't last.

That moment of passing, when we move on to the next stage of life, is a certain kind of death. Not a physical death, but a death in that things can no longer exist as they once were. We realize that a certain way of living is over- we will no longer be in certain places, take certain classes, be influenced by certain people. And when that realization hits us, that deep sadness sets in, a sadness that is a longing for a life that we've become comfortable and familiar with.

That's simply what life is. It's not that we live and die once; rather, we live and die a thousand times before moving on to the next stage of life. It's the process by which we become better, by which we perfect ourselves. A little bit of our old self dies, only to be reborn into something a little better, a little more experienced, a little more capable.

It's quite beautiful. The sadness fades into a renewed, richer happiness when we move on to the next stage, and progressively our lives take on renewed meaning. We move forward with faith knowing that what we left behind has made us into who we are and given us a taste of life, and what lies ahead will refine us even more.

"It's the end of a cycle, but maybe it's the beginning of a new one."

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Time

The other day, I accidentally left my phone in a friend's car for a few hours. When I walked up to campus later that morning, sans phone, I realized just how liberated I felt. I had no obligations. I couldn't check my e-mail to check the status on the latest Political Review issue coming out, or to make sure that my assignment was still due on Friday, or to see if I'd heard back from a job I was interviewing for.

I ran into a couple of friends who I chatted with for awhile. There was none of the usual sense of urgency in the conversation; I felt no pressure to go on to the next task for the day, mainly because I was blissfully unaware of the time. I took time to walk slower and notice the beautiful spring weather. I enjoyed feeling alive.

Our Western culture revolves around time. We fill our daily planners with time scheduled for meetings, homework, eating, volunteer time, and even social functions. We prize completing tasks in the most efficient, quickest way possible. We envy those who achieve renown early in life. We publish books and give seminars on how to cram as many activities into as little time as possible.

To make things worse, we place the most value on that which can be measured. The number of connections on LinkedIn. The number of likes on our Facebook posts. The number of baptisms. Our GPA. The number of shoes we have. The number of friends we have. Girls we've kissed. Girls we've dated. How long we read the scriptures. How many times we've read the scriptures. How many job interviews we've had. Starting salaries. Profits. GDP.

It's as if having more of all these things automatically makes us better people.

I totally disagree, but unfortunately, I am a product of Western culture, and so I often fall into the trap of more=better. I judge the success of my day by how much work I've done or how productive I've been as measured by how many tasks I've accomplished. In the busy routine of school and work, even social activities become boiled down into numbers.

However, how much of what is really important in life can be measured by numbers? I doubt very much that the Lord will look at our planners to determine the number of tasks accomplished, ask us what our GPA was, care very much about our ending salary, or even demand us why we didn't have too many baptisms on our missions. Of course, the Lord will hold us responsible for how we used our time; I'm simply arguing that we shouldn't let life become a numbers game.

How much of our time can we honestly say has been quality time, where we stopped to help someone, skipped a class to listen to an old friend, meditated about life, spent our entire scripture reading session on one verse, did something we liked just because we wanted to do it, read a book that wasn't required reading, visited our home/visiting teachees outside of the monthly visit?

Elder Uchtdorf sums it up brilliantly:

"Isn’t it true that we often get so busy? And, sad to say, we even wear our busyness as a badge of honor, as though being busy, by itself, was an accomplishment or sign of a superior life.

Is it?

I think of our Lord and Exemplar, Jesus Christ, and His short life among the people of Galilee and Jerusalem. I have tried to imagine Him bustling between meetings or multitasking to get a list of urgent things accomplished.

I can’t see it.

Instead I see the compassionate and caring Son of God purposefully living each day. When He interacted with those around Him, they felt important and loved. He knew the infinite value of the people He met. He blessed them, ministered to them. He lifted them up, healed them. He gave them the precious gift of His time."

It's something I'm trying to work on. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Now

"...for behold,now is the time and the day of your salvation..." (Alma 34:31)

When I was younger, I once read a story from a book of Eastern European folk stories.

A young student once complained about the difficulties that naturally accompany life. An old lady appeared and gave him a ball of yarn, telling him that if he ever wanted to skip the more tedious parts of his life, all he had to do was cut the yarn and time would pass by in an instant. Bored with school, he cut the yarn and found himself done with his studies. When he was called into the army, he cut the yarn and found himself back at home; when his kids were giving him problems, he cut the yarn and found them grown; when his marriage was suffering, he cut the yarn and found the problems resolved. He used the yarn so much that he quickly arrived at the end of his life. However, he found only a sense of emptiness in his waning years. He hadn't really served his country, he hadn't seen his kids grow up, and he hadn't really cultivated his relationship with his wife. He had just skated by with his yarn, never being challenged and never really developing. In short, he hadn't really lived.

How often do we have trouble living in the now?
How often do we say to ourselves, "Oh, I just have to make it through this semester/meeting/problem/job and then I'll be happy. And then I can do all those things I've always wanted to do."?
How often do we "cut our yarn" by living in moments past or yearning for the proverbial greener grass on other side?
How often to do we stop to embrace our opportunities for good, service, and love that are always around us no matter the circumstances?
How often do we stop and simply enjoy the feeling of being alive and knowing that we are children of God?

Fortunately, I think the old woman came back just before he died and allowed the boy to go back through and live his life again. Or something like that. It seemed to have a happy ending. Unfortunately for us, we don't have the opportunity to go back and relive our lives if we're unsatisfied. There is no return policy for the inimitable gift that God has given us.

But fortunately (for me, at least), we can't skip any parts of it. And for that I am grateful.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Interview

Last week, I went to Denver for a job interview. The interview was divided into two parts: a presentation on the first day and an actual interview on the second. After the presentation on the first day, I decided that the job wasn't for me. However, I was a few hundred miles away from home and had a rental car, a paper to write, and a whole day before my flight left.

So I did the only logical thing: cancel my interview and go drive around in the mountains by Denver to find inspiration for my paper.

Did you know that Buffalo Bill was buried 25ish miles west of Denver? I didn't before I saw the exit 246 sign (or thereabouts) loudly proclaiming so. My paper would just have to wait. The $5 spent at the Bill Memorial Museum may have been one of the best $5 I've spent.


I felt really weird being in the museum alone dressing up like Buffalo Bill, but I couldn't resist putting on at least a hat and boots. Yippee ki yay.

 Buffalo Bill's actual grave.

So after Buffalo Bill and a great view of Denver, I found the beautiful little town of Idaho Springs a few miles down the road. In addition to being quaint and quiet, it had a hippy-ish, natural feeling to it that felt very comfortable. I thought it would be a good place to write my paper, but it wasn't exactly nature, where I felt my muses would most easily come to me, so after seeing a bunch of outdoor stores, restaurants, an abandoned train, and a sign for organic frozen yogurt, I decided to move on.



So, I drove up into the mountains. The views were amazing, but the roads were still pretty bad. At one point, I got my car stuck in a snow bank. Fortunately, I met some really cool people from Nebraska and Iowa on vacation who took me down to a nearby ranger station where we got a shovel to dig my car out. Meeting new people and bonding with them in weird situations is one of the reasons why I love travel. By the time I got it out, it was about 4pm in the afternoon, and I still had no paper written. Given that it was 29 degrees outside and windy, with the sun starting to go behind the mountains, I figured that nature probably wasn't my best ally in getting my paper done.



So I drove back to Idaho Springs, found a Starbucks that had a nice, homey feel to it, and started working on my paper. As customers came in, the employees greeted a lot of them by name and chatted with them about hobbies, families, and life. It brought home the sense of community and family that small town America has and which we often and unfortunately lack in Provo. As I was walking back to my rental car, the sunset offered a view too magnificent to pass up.


I didn't end up getting much done on my paper, but I didn't care too much by the end of the day.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Theodicy

And the Lord spake unto Adam, saying: Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good.

And it is given unto them to know good from evil; wherefore, they are agents unto themselves.

In my religion class this week, I learned a new word: theodicy. Theodicy is the attempt to reconcile the the existence of evil with the existence of an omnipotent and all-good God. I don't have a definite answer for the problem, but I think I'm starting to get something of an idea.

The above scriptures teach us that evil is a moral necessity; it is through evil that we are able to prize the good. Through the light of Christ we can know the difference the between good and evil, but it's through the experiencing of evil, sorrow, and pain that we appreciate and have a testimony of what is morally good. 

I recognize that this has its limitations and doesn't explain the existence of holocausts, massacres, and a host of other evil phenomena. It doesn't make sense that people would have to live through such horrible things just to learn to prize the good. But I know that for me, at least, heartache, disappointment, and suffering has simply been a part of the schooling necessary to make me into what I am today. And for that I am grateful.